UPDATE: Three people were killed when Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa’s Air Med helicopter crashed north of Ventura Wednesday night.
Jodi Ball, a Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa spokesperson, confirmed that the Mason City hospital-based helicopter had crashed while en route to Emmetsburg to pick up a patient. She said the hospital staff was "devastated" upon hearing of the incident.
The three people on board — a nurse, Shelly "Shell" Lair-Langenbau; a paramedic, Russell "Russ" Piehl; and a pilot with Med-Trans, the helicopter service — were killed in the crash, according to a press release from Mercy-North Iowa. There was no patient on board.
“I know their colleagues in health care are grieving the loss with their loved ones,” said Dan Varnum, president and CEO of Mercy-North Iowa. “The entire organization and I send prayers to all who knew them. They were committed and dedicated to serving the people of Northern Iowa and Southern Minnesota.
“They were each selfless health care professionals devoted to the delivery of emergency medical care," Varnum said in a statement. "While they fulfilled significant duties, they played a greater role as our neighbors and friends.”
Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals, who had earlier confirmed the deaths but did not release the names of the persons killed, said the cause of the accident is not known, and the Federal Aviation Administration will be investigating.
The Mercy press release said that Mercy-North Iowa is working closely with law enforcement officials and the FAA in investigating the accident.
Members of Mercy-North Iowa’s Spiritual Care Department and counselors were available Wednesday and will continue to be available to provide support, the release said.
Emergency vehicles were gathered about half a mile west of the intersection of 260th Street and Balsam Avenue after the crash was reported about 9 p.m. Wednesday.
A Globe Gazette photographer at the scene said ATVs and snowmobiles were also being used by emergency responders to get to the crash site.
Butch Kozisek of Ventura said he saw the helicopter crash.
“I seen one heck of an explosion,” Kozisek said Wednesday night.
He said he was startled by the sound of the chopper.
“Me and the wife were looking out the window and wondering what it was and then the sound quit for about a second or two and then just a big ball of fire at ground level.”
Kozisek said he lives about three-quarters of a mile from the crash site.
He said there was no evidence of fire while the helicopter was still in the air.
KarrieJo VanderPloeg, of rural Clear Lake, said she was on her way home with her family when they “saw the sky light up.”
She said it was scary because they didn’t know what it was. They drove on gravel roads until they came upon the crash site.
VanderPloeg said they saw someone walking around with a flashlight, but they didn’t get out of the car because their children were with them.
According to Globe Gazette files, Mercy-North Iowa’s latest helicopter was put into service in Mason City in April 2011.
Med-Trans Corp., headquartered in Dallas, entered into a contract with Mercy-North Iowa to provide air service on Feb. 1, 2011. The hospital said the decision to go with the company followed a 12-month selection process.
Dr. Matthew Schiller, medical director of the Mercy Emergency Department, said at the time the contract was announced that the company "has an excellent safety record."
Patti Peterson, director of the Mercy Emergency Department, Mercy Air Med and Mercy Family Health Line, said when the contract was announced, "Med-Trans is one of the nation's leading air medical services and has an excellent safety record. Med-Trans has partnered with numerous hospitals across the country to provide the highest level of aviation support for superior MedEvac operations."
The company provides the helicopter, pilots and other personnel. The helicopter features the latest EMS technology and safety features, including night vision goggles and satellite communication technology. It is also faster and has a longer range than the previous Mercy North-Iowa helicopter.
The helicopter accommodates one patient and three crew members: a nurse, a paramedic and a pilot.[mqMap key="f2B96bUQ" width="680" height="420" src="http://www.mapquest.com/embed?icid=mqdist_mb_wp&c=f2B96bUQ&maptype=map&zm=8&cr=42.87690474061468,-92.75807150784125&projection=sm&showScale=false"]My New Map[/mqMap]